Monthly Archives: September 2015

Sep 09

Rabbi Rafi published on the front page of Reflections

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

Sometime around the founding of Google, a discussion took place on whether to have a motto for the company. After much debate, the wording “Don’t be evil” was decided upon. The idea, as explained in a letter to shareholders, was this: “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains.”

As of today, however, that motto has changed into a less than watered-down version that does not even resemble an imperative. On the web page that describes Google’s philosophy, “Don’t be evil” has been replaced by “You can make money without doing evil”, a major departure from the original intent. The original conception has been reduced from a moral principle which involves constant struggle to a way of judging individual actions in pursuit of quite different goals.

This week’s sedra, Ki Tetzei, is one of the most expansive in terms of laws. There are a total of 74, quite a hefty portion of the total in the Bible. The organising principle of this collection is centred on individuals, their families, their neighbours, and the relationships between them. Following several of the laws given, an interesting phrase is appended: ubi’arta hara mikirbecha – thus you will sweep away evil from your midst.

Many laws in the Bible have no reason associated with them, such as not mixing crops of different kinds or combining linen and wool. But in this case, a very clear message is being sent. The purpose is not to prevent a specific action, but to prevent the mind-set that allows evil to occur.

Our collections of laws are given, not simply to prevent or encourage individual actions, but to craft a holy and just society. The lofty goal of eliminating evil entirely from our community is laudable, but the conditions need to be right for that to occur.

Laws that provide for the just (at the time) treatment of women or the poor take centre stage. In order for a society to eradicate evil, the lowliest among us, the most vulnerable, need to be made to feel secure. The impulse – or at the very least, the opportunity – to do evil must be purged.

But what exactly is this thing we are seeking to expunge? Today, we generally see evil as the polar opposite to good. But in Judaism, evil is not at all seen that way. Evil is that which defies or challenges good. We may never acquire a final sense of goodness or completeness, but we are in a constant struggle to improve or elevate ourselves. That ultimately is the concept of kedusha, holiness. I am not commanded to pray, or give charity, or keep kosher once. These laws are given to establish the conditions where evil becomes difficult to commit.

When the Malakh changed Jacob’s name to Israel (“struggle on behalf of God”), it was to signify that Jacob’s struggle is our struggle. Ultimately, whatever we do as moral human beings and as Jews is because we have agreed to live in that special relationship.

Evil is not a relative construct open to interpretation but rather an absolute, something against God’s will. God’s presence and evil are incompatible. They cannot coexist. Eradicating evil from our midst therefore invites God’s presence to dwell among us, elevating ourselves to holiness. That is the constant struggle which defines us.

Sep 09

Long standing member, Jonny Freedman is published in Reflections

By SAMS IT Administrator | Blogs

As we approach the Yomim Noraim (Days of Awe) I’d like to offer some lifestyle prescriptions for good health and happiness:

  • Never overeat. Stop eating when your stomach is two-thirds full.
  • One should not eat immediately after exercise.
  • Older people need less food, and if they eat as they did in their youth they will become fat and destroy their lives.
  • Preserve peace of mind in all circumstances.
  • One should pay attention to the body’s signals.
  • People should sleep eight hours each night.
  • Spending time regretting the past or worrying about the future has no benefit.
  • Sick people should be surrounded by good smells and music, joyful stories and laughter.

Hands up, not my ‘prescription’ but just a few of the sayings of Moses Maimonides (Rambam), written between 1165 and 1174 CE whilst court physician to the Sultan (Saladin) in Cairo. Centuries before antibiotics, X-rays and MRI scans and even the thermometer, Rambam was a brilliant doctor who treated the patient rather than the illness and espoused moderation and disease prevention. Such was his renown as a physician that he was invited to return to England with Richard I (‘the Lionheart’) to become his Court physician but he declined out of loyalty to the Sultan.

My interest in Rambam was aroused by the discovery of a small treatise inherited from my Grandfather, part of the ‘Jewish Worthies’ series, and published in 1903. I vaguely knew that Rambam was a physician as well as a great Rabbi and Scholar but I had no concept as to how relevant his ideas could be today. He wrote ten impressive works in Arabic including volumes on asthma, poisons and their antidotes, haemorrhoids and digestion, as well as promoting health promotion and publishing a glossary of drug names in a multitude of languages. This task alone took more than 10 years and was a formidable and impressive undertaking and the first of its kind.

In order to properly assess his patients he insisted on examining them in their home environment. Modern day general practice has witnessed the demise of home visiting. Whilst undoubtedly there are efficiencies in patients attending the surgery, I can concur with Rambam that seeing patients in their own home grants a unique insight into their lives and many factors that influence their health and wellbeing.

Rambam only took up medicine at the age of 37 to support himself and his family. While he based many of his beliefs on the works of Hippocrates and Galen he was not afraid to challenge assumptions or change his views. He never claimed certainty, and constantly strode to scientifically validate his treatments. This also resonates today, with many supposedly ‘modern’ medical beliefs not standing up to scientific scrutiny, yet still routinely offered as ‘fact’.

Whilst I hope there is rarely any intention these days for doctors to deliberately deceive their patients, we should nevertheless take note of Rambam’s words here: “Do not consider it proof just because it is written in books, for a liar who will deceive with his tongue will not hesitate to do the same with his pen”. It makes me reflect that ‘medical certainty’ is as rare and unlikely as ‘religious certainty’.  So it seems that I am a Masorti doctor as well as a Masorti Jew. Perhaps we could say the same about Rambam?

It’s impossible to view him purely as a physician, or a scholar. Both were intrinsic and intertwined aspects of his personality and outlook. This is evident from his teachings and the manner in which he links the attainment of physical and spiritual health. In Chapter 12 of Rambam’s Guide to the Perplexed (c1190), he writes: “In so far as the soul is a force residing in the body; it has therefore been said that the properties of the soul depend of the condition of the body”.

Having begun with some of Rambam’s ‘prescriptions’ for physical and mental wellbeing, his commentary on this week’s parasha, overflowing as it is with blessings and curses, allows Rambam to impart a spiritual message that I believe has the power to carry us through the Days of Awe ahead. He reminds us in his Mishnah Torah (Helichot 3:4) of the awesome power of individuals to make a difference not only personally but to the entire world: “Throughout the entire year, a person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin. If he performs one sin, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of guilt and brings destruction upon himself. On the other hand, if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.”